Sunday, May 31, 2009

2009 Lok Sabha election: Why congress won

The Indian National Congress put on a spectacular performance in the 2009 Lok Sabha election. While in 2004 it gained around 150 seats (not a bad tally in itself, given the highly factional nature of Indian politics), in 2009, the Congress tally was an astounding 200+.

So why did Congress do so well?

People have attributed Congress's win to various reasons such as the desire to have a stable government (and Congress's demonstrating that it can run a stable government for 5 years), or security concerns (and once again, Congress's demonstrating that it was able to adequately respond to the 26/11 attack and manage the country's security thereafter). Or perhaps it was because people thought that only Congress had the right mix of ability and experience at the ministerial level to get the country out of the economic crisis.

These might all be valid reasons for Congress's increasing its vote share.

I think there are other powerful reasons at play here that contributed to the Congress's win in 2009.

Let's not forget that most of the votes in India come from rural and semi-rural areas - areas where agriculture is the dominant economic activity. Here, local issues matter acutely, much much more than in the cities where people also look at what a party is capable of achieving at a national level.
In the rural India, the global macro-economic crisis, prospects for economic revival and the condition of banks is less of a concern than crop yields, farmer debt and jobs for the young people in the village.
Also a concern are roads, electricity, warte and sanitation.

Terrorism of the type that affects India's cities is also not so much of a concern in rural areas. After all how many high profile (non-naxal) terror attacks happen in villages?

What matters is local issues and governments who can deliver solidly at the local level win.

In the last few years, the UPA did exactly that.

There were four programs undertaken by the UPA at the national level that had direct application at the rural level. The success of these programs ranged from good to phenomenal and they made a very large number of rural folk happy.

These programs were:

The National Rural Employment Garauntee Scheme (NREGS): This program provided garaunteed 100 days of non-skilled employment per year to adult members of millions of rural housholds in all districts of the country, and paid decent wages for the same.

Bharat Nirman: This scheme led to the betterment of road, water, electricity and sanitation infrastructure in thousands if villages and small towns leading to a material impact on the quality of life of every rural citizen.

National Farmer Loan Waiver Scheme: This much debated and plenty ridiculed scheme actually worked, freeing thousands of farming households from the crushing weight of debt arizing out of crop failures.

The National Rural Health Mission: This was one of the flagship programs of the UPA government that brought basic healthcare to rural India.

Ironically, many of these socialist programs were started as a consequence of the marriage of the Congress with the left parties and formed a substantial portion of the Common Minimum Program that the Congress was obligated to implement so as to get the left to look the other way while the Congress implemented its reformist agenda.

What set these programs apart was that while previous schemes of such grand nature failed or had limited success, these programs largely succeeded in their goals, owing to a combination of simplicity of design and goals, efficient administration and less corruption in implementation.

And then there was Rahul Gandhi.

This man covered an astounding 87000 kilometers during the election campaign, criss-crossing the country and visiting hundreds of electoral districts, and in the process bringing the Congress to the doorstep of millions of small towns and villages. He may not be the most experienced politicians, but he an American style full-contact campaigneering on a massive scale that actually worked!

So there you have it. These are some of the important things that worked well and endeared Congress to a large number of rural folk in a way that had not been seen in a while.

In hindsight, the formula for winning elections in the new India seems simple:
Engineer and sustain a high rate of GDP growth, which will bring in a large amount of tax money into the government's coffers. Use these monies wisely to launch, manage and efficiently administrator pan-India development schemes in infrastructure, health, education and employment that make a direct and material difference to people's quality of life.

And during election time, connect, connect, connect.

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